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Yemenite Cafe

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Erica Marcus | | Jan 2, 2002 02:08 PM

Three of us had a delightful meal at the Yemenite Cafe on Atlantic between Court and Clinton. After we ordered, our waiter brought a lovely lamb broth for two of us, but noting that our third was vegetarian, he brought her a salad of surprisingly nice greens with a dressing based on their hot relish. It was delicious.

Soon two enormous freshly baked flatbreads showed up. This is the kind of bread that spoils you for commerical pita as it's closer to naan. Our starters and main dishes then arrived together: We had a Yememite-style ful madames which turned out to be mashed up fava (broad beans) in a delectable spice mixture that was quite different from Egyptian-style ful which, although I love it, tends to be a pretty bean-y, one-note affair. Our kidney beans were in a similarly spiced sauce, but whole.

I'll pause here to say that I am ignorant about the history and influences that underlie Yemenite food but I'm fascinated by the fact that it is totally unlike other cuisines of the region (at least as practiced in New York). Frankly, I can't usually tell if the middle eastern restaurant I'm in is of Jordanian or Lebanese or Syrian descent but Yemenite food seems closer to Indian than it does to other Arabian cuisines. Perhaps it is the country's location at the tip of the pennisula...

Back to food: We ordered roast lamb (not on the menu) which turned out to be a great hunk of meaty meat roasted to within an inch of its life (or should I say death). No pink-in-the-middle here. Served with buttered basmati (or other aromatic) rice and a stewed potato. My vegetarian friend ordered "salta" which was a dish of stewed vegetables served in a sizzling-hot pan. Tasty, but dolloped with a strange, watery fenugreek-infused foam that must be very traditional but seemed oddly nouvelle.

The highlight of the meal was a big hot bowl of fattah, strips of bread (this is probably what they do with all the leftover home-baked bread) doused in butter and honey and sprinkled with nigella seeds (often called black sesame seeds). Basically, I wanted to live in this bowl of fattah. It was somewhere between a bread pudding and matzoh brie and was absolutely supernal. Since they brought it along with the other food we certainly weren't going to save it for dessert, but it might have been even better then. I think it would be a great breakfast dish as well.

We did not order the famous Yemenite assid, a big glutinous blob of a dumpling that I've had on earlier occasions and failed to get excited about. But we could have.

My new Arabic motto: Make fattah, not fatwa.

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